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'Leverage campaigns' by unions would not be restricted by tougher UK strike laws, says expert

Plans by the new business secretary to overhaul UK strike laws will not necessarily reduce the risk of business disruption to employers, since trade unions now have more sophisticated means of putting pressure on businesses at their disposal, an expert has said.

Conservative MP Sajid Javid, who was appointed to the role following the Conservative Party's majority victory in last week's general election, told the BBC's Today programme that the government planned to enact the new laws as a priority. New ballot rules which would make strikes lawful only if more than 50% of union members took part in the vote, amongst other restrictions, would be included in next month's Queen's Speech, he told the programme.

Employment law expert Christopher Mordue of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that unions had been preparing for the changes, which were included in the Conservative pre-election manifesto, "for some time". He said that increased use of so-called 'leverage' campaigns to put pressure on employers was more likely than unofficial action or 'wildcat' strikes in response.

"Although these new rules would mean that unions would have to work harder to secure a mandate for lawful industrial action, the risk of business disruption for employers will not necessarily diminish," he said.

"Unions have been making increasing use over recent years of leverage campaigns – using demonstrations, protests and social media campaigns to open up new lines of attack on the employer and its senior management, with the aim of getting shareholders, customers, suppliers and the public to put pressure on the employer to back the union demands. These campaigns - which can be very disruptive and difficult to counter – can be run without any industrial action ballot so would not be affected or restricted by the legal changes being planned by the new government, making them an even more attractive option for the unions," he said.

Strikes are currently legal if they receive the approval of the majority of those balloted. The proposed changes would require at least a 50% turnout and simple majority. A stricter threshold would be applied if the proposed strike would affect essential public services such as transport, health, fire services or education. These cases would require a majority vote, but that majority would have to make up at least 40% of all union members eligible to vote.

The new government also intends to lift restrictions on the use of agency staff to replace striking workers. Mordue said the new legislation could also include "rules which limit the time for which a successful ballot makes strike action lawful - forcing unions to call off the dispute or go through a further, often expensive, balloting process".

"A key part of unions' plan has been to seek to use the Human Rights Act to strike down any legislation which makes it harder to organise lawful industrial action," said Mordue. "That sort of legal challenge may be closed down if the new government also moves quickly to abolish the HRA and take the UK outside the authority of the European Court of Human Rights."

In his interview with the Today programme, Javid said that the changes would "certainly increase the hurdles that need to be crossed" before a lawful strike could be called. However, he said that it was the "right" and "fair" thing to do.

"The changes that we want to make to strike laws are … proportionate, they're sensible," he said. "If you look at other countries and what they've done they're not too dissimilar."

"What people are fed up of is strike action that hasn't been properly supported by the members of the relevant union. We've seen, including in the last five years, strike action that took place where perhaps only 10% or 15% of the members of that profession actually voted for it, and that's not right, it's unfair, especially when it comes to essential public services," he said.

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